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Gamification in HR: the reinvention of work

Work is a game. You know that phrase ‘he’s just good at playing the game’? You also know all of those other Americanisms about ballparks, strategic ‘plays’, A-games and so on.

The thing is, all of our lives we've been playing games. Not just scrabble, doctors and nurses and football. School was a big game. So was college, university, and then employment. Maybe even being in a family is a bit like being in a game: a difficult game…

Each game is made up of simple rules; each includes competitions, collaboration, teams (and individuals who won't play as part of a team), shared goals and many different roles played by many different players.

Let me ask you this: what are the rules of the game in your workplace?

Think about it now. What kind of behaviour wins? What are the no-nos, the lines that must not be transgressed, the own goals? If someone is 'just playing the game' at your place, what is the game they are playing?

From an HR and broader business perspective this kind of thinking isn't particularly new. Writer and management consultant Peter Drucker said: 'what gets measured gets done' and in the HR community we have over time begun to fully appreciate the power of rewards, incentives and measures on culture, behaviour and performance in our organisations. So what now?

What is becoming trendy is the concept of 'gamifying' work. The promise of gamification is to take these nuanced and implicit game rules and make them more visible, more tangible and more fun.

Gamification is borne out of both academic study showing the power of play, and a populist resurgence in the power of games in an age where the video games business makes more money than many other traditional entertainment businesses. 'Look at video games' the logic goes, 'look how absorbed people are, how engaged they are, how much they care about being at the top of that leaderboard'. And video gamers aren't kids any more - the average video gamer is in their 30s. This is our workforce, these our colleagues, it might even be us.

There is power here. The idea is to take techniques from game design and apply them in non-game contexts, so that the experience for the employee or 'user' is more engaging. Classic game design techniques include goal setting, real-time feedback, competition and rewards.

Let's say you want to encourage knowledge sharing - a common goal for our clients. The old game of work rewards knowledge hoarding. Being the go-to person for scarce, tacit knowledge stored only in your head can be a good strategy for doing well in many businesses. But enlightened employers increasingly want that knowledge to be networked, to be shared, stored, available to others.

So how do you gamify that?

On the popular Stack Overflow website, programmers from all around the world help one another solve tricky 'bugs' and software development challenges that they can't fix themselves. If you post a tricky problem and I provide a helpful answer, you can vote up my answer. Over time, I develop a reputation, I accumulate badges, and all of this is stored on my profile page. As I write this article I'm looking at the profile page of a top user who appears on the 'top users this week' page - he's a British guy working at Google who has accumulated 11,319 upvotes from other users in the time that he's used the site, he has 5,774 badges including the 'Nice answer' badge a whopping 3,109 times and the 'Enlightened' badge 1,327 times.

Does this guy do it for votes and badges? I wouldn't imagine that's his primary motivation, a bit like my primary motivation in Facebook isn't getting 'Likes' or my primary motivation at work every day isn't collecting my pay cheque. But it kinda helps. Those rewards help fuel me, keep me engaged, meet different needs that I have. Does this guy get a kick to be in the top 0.01% of Stack Overflow users - I imagine so.

Whatever the case, the game works. In Stack Overflow, knowledge is shared freely. Knowledge is still the currency, but a reputation score is the balance - a highly visible, transparent reward for those that share their knowledge to help others.

But before you write this off as 'just what geeks do' thinking about the Money Saving Expert forums, or the Mumsnetters, or the ScrewFix forums. In each of these spaces lots of normal, unpaid people are investing time helping one another out. In each of these places, people do what they do because they want to. And because they get a kick from their karma score, the thanks they get, the tangible and intangible rewards of being part of that community.

So this is why gamification is the hot new buzzword in HR, trumpeted by software vendors and conference programmes. Because in this new, more digital and networked world, where new connections are possible between people and knowledge, progressive ways to reward behaviour can help create powerful business results and drive up employee engagement.

Will McInnes (pictured) is MD of social business consultancy NixonMcInnes and author of Culture Shock